A big thanks to Ross, and make sure to check them out during and post game for coverage of the contest.
1) Obviously, things are good for Iowa right now, 2 wins away from a B1G title and a College Football Playoff berth. Instead of asking what things are like in Iowa City, was this really a feasible thought before the season for most Hawkeye fans?
ROSS: Did anyone expect to be 11-0 and ranked in the Top 4 of the College Football Playoff at this point in the season? Uh... no. Decidedly not in any realistic sense. Iowa ended 2014 on a three-game losing streak, which included an almost-got-'em loss to Wisconsin, a mortifying meltdown against Nebraska, and a start-to-finish beatdown from Tennessee. And that was only half of Iowa's losses last year -- the other three (a home loss to Iowa State, a road collapse against Maryland, a complete implosion versus Minnesota) were pretty galling, too. Plus, Iowa was going to be entering 2015 down both offensive and defensive tackles (including the Outland Trophy winner in 2014), a starting running back, and a starting quarterback. There was some hope that this could be a decent year, mostly due to a schedule that appeared favorable on paper, but there was not an expectation that things would be so wonderful.
2) C.J. Beathard has been better than advertised, I would imagine. The guy makes a living off of extending plays and has played hurt for a fair amount of the season it seems. What’s the one thing you’re looking for when he plays Nebraska on Friday?
ROSS: His health has been a big question mark over the second half of the season, as he's been dealing with groin and hip injuries that have somewhat limited his mobility and also impact his throwing ability a touch (mainly on deep balls). He's looked better recently -- he has three rushing touchdowns in the last three games, picked up several first downs with his feet, and extended several other plays with his scrambling ability. If he's able to do that on Friday, I'm going to be confident about Iowa's ability to move the ball on Nebraska and score some points.
3. Another solid set of Running Backs this year. Talk about who we should see and what they bring to the table that may differ themselves from the others.
ROSS: I think you'll see all four running backs in action on Friday. The main backs for most of the year have been LeShun Daniels and Jordan Canzeri. Daniels started the year as the starter, but a high ankle sprain limited his effectiveness for several games. He's looked good lately, though -- as evidenced by the 195-yard, 3 TD performance he put together against Minnesota two weeks ago. He's nominally the bruising power back, but he's shown an ability to make some sharp cuts and better-than-expected speed in the open field.
Canzeri has been Iowa's most productive running back this year (824 yards and 10 TD on 159 carries) and primary rusher for most of the season. He's shiftier and quicker than Daniels, but he can absorb a hit and break a tackle or two as well. He's also adept in the passing game (18 receptions, 196 yards) and can hurt teams through the air when he leaks out of the backfield. Canzeri and Daniels figure to get the bulk of the carries, but I certainly hope that Akrum Wadley isn't a forgotten man on Friday.
Wadley stepped up as Iowa's lead back when both Canzeri and Daniels were limited by injury and he produced a standout performance against Northwestern: 26 carries, 204 yards, 4 TDs. He's a very slippery runner and does a great job of making one cut and accelerating. He has the most big play ability of Iowa's running backs, too. Finally, Derrick Mitchell has emerged as Iowa's preferred third-down back and he's done a good job in that role -- he's increasingly good at picking up blitzers and blocking for Beathard, but he's a capable runner and dangerous pass-catcher (especially on screen routes) as well.
4. Matt VandeBurg is the guy with the most catches and yards among pass catchers, but this Wideout group is going against arguably the second weakest Secondary they’ve seen all year (thanks Indiana). Who can do damage here and how will Beathard/Greg Davis use them?
ROSS: VandeBerg has been Iowa's most consistent receiver and he's the team leader (by far) in catches (56) and yards (594). He's a reliable possession receiver and a go-to guy for Beathard when Iowa needs a first down. He's also flashed some ability to make big plays downfield, though.
That said, Iowa's main big play threat is Tevaun Smith -- 24 catches, 433 yards, 2 TDs isn't the most eye-opening stat line (he did miss a handful of games with a knee injury), although his 18.04 yards per catch stat is a pretty telling indicator of his big play ability. Iowa will absolutely be looking to make plays downfield with Smith against Nebraska's secondary.
Finally, the tight ends have really emerged as key part of Iowa's passing attack lately, Henry Krieger Coble and George Kittle (fun fact: they're cousins!) have combined for 43 catches for 567 yards, and 6 TDs. Krieger Coble is one of Beathard's favorite targets on third down and Kittle has become a big threat around the end zone. Beathard is likely going to target the tight ends early and often against Nebraska.
5. We all know that Iowa’s Defense is no joke, with Desmond King seeming to get all the national pub after Drew Ott went out. However, Nebraska is known to make some Defenses look silly with the passing attack at times. What gives you hope that the Hawkeye D is going to win this battle?
ROSS: I am definitely concerned about this matchup because Iowa's defense has been struggling of late -- it was one thing to give up a lot of yards and points to Indiana's offense and Nate Sudfeld; it's another thing entirely to give up yards and points aplenty to Mitch Leidner and Austin Appleby, you know? Iowa's biggest problem of late has probably been their inability to generate a pass rush; the loss of Drew Ott has really hurt in that department (both because he's not there to get after the passer and also because his absence means someone else has to play more, which reduces Iowa's ability to rotate pass rushers and stay fresh). If they're not able to get after Armstrong and force him into some dumb mistakes, it could be a shaky day for Iowa's defense.
My main hope is rooted in intangibles -- that Iowa's defenders are able to dig deep and come up with a clutch performance on Friday. I know they've wanted this game for a long time -- last year's loss to Nebraska was a very scarring one for this team and they've been itching to get some payback ever since. Hopefully that lights a fire under them. There's also the fact that 12-0 is on the line -- that's a very, very exciting accomplishment to have on the table and I know this team is really excited to try and add it to the litany of big things they've accomplished this year.
6. All through the year and in Monday’s presser, the taste of how Iowa lost the Nebraska game last year seems to still be there from Kirk Ferentz. Can you explain what that changed in the program to start this season and continue throughout the year?
ROSS: It's been a lot of small changes, really. Ferentz made small changes to the team's preparation (morning practices, more rest) and in-game he's been committed to being more aggressive, especially in offensive playcalling. That's manifested in more downfield passing, going for it on fourth down more often, and even a few fake field goals. He also re-jiggered some of the coaching responsibilities for members of the staff, which seems to be working well. The other change has just been the leadership in the program. For whatever reason, the leadership on last year's team wasn't very good. There's been a renewed commitment from the players on this year's team -- especially several seniors -- to provide better leadership and it really seems to have paid off.
7. Kirk Ferentz was mocked a lot by a lot of folks before this year (including from his fanbase), but has earned that salary. Is this a aberration or do you expect this now more and more from him and his staff?
ROSS: It's hard to say. I certainly hope this is the new normal, but we need to see more than one year of results before making that judgment. As I mentioned above, this has been a very special and motivated senior class, so it's certainly fair to wonder what happens when that senior class is gone. Will their replacements be able to provide the same level of leadership? Will they be able to maintain their level of production? There are reasons to be optimistic for sure -- Iowa should return a lot of key players on offense (Beathard, Daniels, Wadley, Kittle, VandeBerg, 3/5 of the offensive line) and many defensive starters (3/4 of the defensive line, 2/3 of the linebackers, at least 1/2 of the secondary) -- and the way Ferentz & Co. have coached this year is encouraging. I'm cautiously optimistic that there's more success to come for Iowa, but I need to see how this team responds next season to know for sure.
8. We have heard the chirping, but what’s the actual thought on how many are coming to Lincoln? Will people stay home to save for Indianapolis the next week?
ROSS: Honestly, I don't have a good sense of the numbers there. I know Iowa fans are really excited about the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis next week and I'm sure a lot of fans will be looking to head to Iowa's bowl game (and there's a good chance it will be a very nice one). That's a lot of trips to make in a pretty short span of time, you know? That said, this is one heck of a special season and Lincoln certainly isn't that far for many Iowa fans, particularly those on the western side of the state. Ultimately, I think there will be a good-sized number of Iowa fans there -- maybe 15K?
9. Tell us about anyone else that we haven’t talked about above.
ROSS: Jeez, we've covered a lot of guys already. I suppose I'll use this space to give an extra shout-out to Desmond King, who's been fantastic all year and a huge part of Iowa's defense. Iowa fans knew he was good -- he's been a starter since he was a freshman and provided great coverage on a pretty consistent basis for the last two years -- but he's taken his game up a notch this year. He's currently tied for the national lead in interceptions with 8 -- which also happens to tie the Iowa school record for most picks in a season. Every Iowa fan would dearly love to see him break a record against Nebraska on Friday.
10. Call your shot and tell us the final score Friday, and how we’ll get to that destination.
ROSS: I mean, I can't go against Iowa now, can I? I expect Nebraska to put up one hell of an effort and likely quite a few points -- Iowa's defense has been struggling lately and Nebraska's offense is pretty damn good -- but I think Iowa ultimately forces a few key turnovers in the second half and Beathard leads the Iowa offense on some fourth quarter scoring drives to lock up the victory. Iowa 38, Nebraska 28.